Felt I should talk about the adventure we're going to run for the playtest, to give people a better idea of how the classes performed. Just doing a homebrew means that Paizo and you wouldn't know all the variables in an encounter. By running FoP (which is an excellent module for the Investigator) by the book, others can look at the encounters I ran and judge for yourself how accurate our findings are.
I worked with the players to make the pre-gens, asking the non-Witch PCs to be made with Versatile Humans, and the Witch PC to be an Ancient Elf (I was going to let the Swashbuckler use a Frilled Lizardfolk when she wanted to be a Braggart, but she wanted to go Gymnast instead). Using Natural Ambition, I wanted the PCs to use as many feats as possible, to understand how class and general feats interact with each other, to make up for the low-levels being played.
We're going to speed-run through the campaign, to try and finish it in time. I'll update this thread when the group levels up, since the adventure nicely divides each level of adventure as a nice break in action. I'll include the side-quests in it, but not specifically call them out as such, and see where the players go with it.
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PCs for level one:
Versatile Human Swashbuckler (Gymnast)
Background: Lesser Scion
Feats: Tumble Behind, Natural Ambition (Nimble Dodge), Titan Wrestler
Ancient Elf Witch (Lesson of Fate)
Feats: Wizard Dedication (cantrips: Ray of Frost, Electric Arc), Nimble, Wortwitch
Leshy Familiar (Fly Speed, Speak Common, Manual Dexterity)
Versatile Human Investigator (Forensic Medicine)
Background: Missionary (of Pharsma)
Feats: Flexible Studies, Natural Ambition (On the Scene), Canny Acumen (Fortitude)
Weapons: Rapier, Sap, Shortbow
Armour: Studded Leather Armour
Versatile Human Battle Oracle of Gorum
Background: Lost & Alone
Feats: Student of the Canon, Natural Ambition (Glean Lore)
The first encounter with the wolves went very well as a tutorial scene for the new classes. Seldon got to practise how to use his Summon Fey spell, Brother Green got to critically hit one of the lesser wolves, Janus tested her combat skills against the wolves (killed a lesser wolf, survived a critical hit by the Caustic Wolf), and Esmerelda got to do a lot of panache-inducing activities (balancing on top of a startled horse while getting her ankle nipped by a wolf). The Swashbuckler and Oracle both helped the teamsters get the wagon out of the mudhole. The Investigator made the wagon the subject of his Open Case ability, and I allowed him to use 'Clue In' to help the Oracle succeed at her Athletics check (after she missed the DC by 1).
Coming into town, the Investigator made a Recall Knowledge check and I told him the town's poor history with killing Witches, so that put Seldon on high alert. He and the rest of the party didn't interact with many people in the tavern, so I sent Lawren Krent over to the table, as per the side-quest. Janus immediately took to talking to a fellow soldier, and eventually got out of him his problem with his dead friend. The party left the tavern with Krent before most of the people showed up, thinking they had found the main plot.
They went to the hut and peered inside. I was still a little unclear on what exactly 'On the Scene' did, so I pointed out to Brother Green that the silver shine in the backpack looked like a holy symbol. When the ghost manifested, the Investigator knew they had to retrieve it. While Seldon fired cantrips from a distance and Janus tried to Disrupt Undead, Esmerelda leapt into the hut, picked up the holy symbol, and raced out. Brother Green (succeeding on a Religion check) helped Lawren put the ghost to rest.
Not wanting to disrupt the *actual* story, I just moved back the events to when the PCs returned. However, when the brawl broke out and Lawren left, the party went with him, and waited until Rolth came in and settled things down. I finally got them to sit down with Bort and watch him get poisoned. The PCs acquitted themselves under examination by the sheriff, though Seldon failed to hide his sketchy power source, and Janus used Intimidating Glare and a Natural 20 to coerce Rolth to quit questioning her.
The first place they looked for clues was in the kitchen, where they smelt the odd smell in Bort's dish. This got them on Amora as the main suspect early, and visiting her home only made her more suspicious: living outside of town, near a creepy grove, managing a hive of large bees (which produce poison), and being indifferent to the actual death. The PCs only stumbled upon Hallod as someone to talk to after searching Bort's records and finding records of Bort secretly delivering things to him.
Even as they delved through Hallod's house, the PCs genuinely didn't think he was the killer. The party was making theories that Bort had a special relationship with Amora (because he loved her meals), and Amora was trying to get in on his deal with Hallod, with Farmer Eallom as an accomplice. Brother Green's player thought he was a Walter White side-character, Janus' player thought he was a doomsday prepper, and Esmeralda's player thought he was a 'The Sixth Sense' ghost. Given that no-one saw Hallod until the final encounter, it was certainly open to interpretation. However, by the time the party fought a Lightning Serpent, they were willing to take down Hallod, whether he was guilty or not!
I ruled that Seldon's Tiny Leshy Familiar didn't trigger the tunnel trap, and its good reflex save and initiative roll allowed it to trigger the dog ambush and escape unharmed. The Swashbuckler saw the trap (with help from the Investigator's Clue In ability) and used her javelin to trigger the trap. I decided that the dogs would still be yapping, so the spellcasters used their cantrips to harass the dogs until they retreated back into their cage. The PCs were in a rush to find Hallod, so they just made a quick sweep of his living quarters to look for traps or secret doors. Brother Green found the chest and the trap within, but left it behind to study later.
The final encounter ended with Esmerelda bleeding out on the rock, thanks to Hallod. She ran up to Hallod on the first turn and managed to whip him in the face, but got downed on his first attack (using a Hero Point to get to 0) and brought to Dying on his second attack. She missed her first recovery check by 1, and rolled a critical failure on the second one to go straight to Dying 4. Janus, properly enraged, got a critical hit with her Magic Weaponed Trident and killed Hallod. She then went back to the chest and smashed it open, to find the clues within.
Thoughts: I think this module was very useful for the classes being tested. The Investigator has a mystery to solve, the Swashbuckler had many things to stunt on, and the spellcasters had flavourful ties into the story.
The Investigator was very useful in beating skill checks, and helping others. I was very lenient in how the Investigator used 'Take the Case' and 'Clue In': he used it on a wagon and a tunnel, and I let him give the +1 bonus after another PC failed at the skill check.
The Witch didn't engage much, a bit because of Etran's Folly history with Witch-killing, but also because of his weak AC and HP. He built a PC with long-distance cantrips and a 35-ft. speed, so he was often far away from combat. He was also the quietest at the table, except for when he was specifically needed. He volunteered his familiar to explore the tunnel, but when I told him later how much he would lose if his familiar died, he said he wouldn't have sent his familiar down so far.
The Oracle was happy with her character. She felt it performed far better than she expected, and that it reminded her of a Champion. She didn't feel that 'Call to Arms' was worth invoking a curse for, but Weapon Surge was.
The Swashbuckler died in the end, but she did very well in other sticky situations. Maybe it was just high rolls, but it felt like she could do so many wacky and death-defying stunts. I didn't allow Esmerelda to use Athletics for Initiative every time, but if she knew trouble was afoot and she was ready to fight, I allowed it. She didn't try to metagame the Panache-triggering, but I was open enough for it and she was daring enough that she triggered Panache almost every round.
The Swashbuckler's player will either come back with a level 2 Swashbuckler or an Oracle, we're not sure yet.
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PCs for Level Two:
Shulkuru the Rainbow-Collared
Frilled Lizardfolk Swashbuckler (Braggart)
Background: Martial Disciple
Feats: Sharp Fangs, Cat Fall, Steady Balance, You're Next, Finishing Follow-through
Armour: Leather Armour
Seldon Calendar (Witch) upgrades:
- Enhanced Familiar Class Feat (Lifelink, cantrip connection)
- Alchemical Crafting Skill Feat
- Mending and Unseen Servant spells
Brother Green (Investigator) upgrades:
- Framing Case Class Feat
- Robust Recovery Skill Feat
Janus Thane (Oracle) upgrades:
- Bard Dedication (Detect Magic & Message cantrips)
- Hefty Hauler Skill Feat
- Purify Food and Drink spell
- I talked to the Swashbuckler's player and she was okay with being introduced as Noala's companion. It helped corroborate the Ranger's story, because I front-loaded her with the backstory, so a PC was able to verify it was true. That helped move the group into following her out into the woods, and when Noala said she wouldn't go into combat with the PCs, Shulkuru joining the group made the situation feel more natural.
- Once again, 'On the Scene' proved to be useful because of all the ambush monsters in this level. Both times the PCs drew close to the plants, I let the Investigator know something was suspicious. He rolled well on Perception and Nature each time to find and identify where and what they were.
I let the PCs inch around the Bloodlash Bushes because I honestly didn't think they were ambulatory. It wasn't until the Witch's flying familiar unintentionally triggered the Vine Lasher with a hanging rope strand later on that I realized both monsters could move around. I didn't retcon the previous encounter, but I had to quickly whip out a battlemat when I thought I wouldn't need it.
With the Vine Lashers, I gave the PCs a lot of space before triggering 'On the Scene'. It made sense to me that the PCs walking on an open field meant that 'On the Scene' would only trigger if they could see the plants. It meant that the PCs were not surrounded by the Lasher, and were not near the poison blooms, so the encounter was much easier.
- The combat was very close-quarters. The wolf encounter bottlenecked the PCs so hard, the Investigator couldn't get into melee until Round 3. The Oracle and Swashbuckler took a lot of damage in that encounter, so they were wary of leaping into combat.
When Brother Green suspected there was danger before the Hedge, the Braggart Swashbuckler attempted to Coerce whomever was hiding out there to reveal themselves. (Only the Lashers were nearby, but all that yelling alerted the orcs in H2). Still suspicious, Seldon sent his flying familiar up in the air with a strand of rope with Light cast on it, as a source of illumination. I had to spend a few minutes determining what was the encumbrance of a tiny familiar with manual dexterity: I ruled that the Everburning Torch would be too unwieldly to hold, but something small enough to hold on to that could give off light would be fine.
After the Leshy triggered the encounter with the Lashers, Seldon later sent his familiar over the hedge to investigate. Lacking darkvision, Seldon gave the familiar another Light spell. This helped the Leshy see the orcs and monsters, but it also gave away its position. Seldon tried to pull off an aerial assault with the Leshy carrying over fire to ignite the wood, but one toss of a javelin by the orc made him back off.
The Investigator and Oracle failed their Recall Knowledge checks to identify the Stone Horse and Icy Rats based on the Leshy's description, and the Witch critically failed his check. I told him that he believed that the animals were actually elementals!
The group began to resign themselves to walk into an ambush, when the Witch's player (squinting at his character sheet, looking for options) suddenly got very excited and pointed out something on his sheet to the other players. The Wortwitch Feat (with its bonuses to attacking through foilage) made him realize that they could create 'murderholes' in the hedge and pepper the monsters with arrows and spells. Since the orcs and animals had no range or reach weapons, they had the ambushers in a shooting gallery!
- I had the orcs run into the cave, which made the players groan. They had already faced one ambush, and now they felt that the rest of the adventure would be one ambush after another. The party abandoned any sense of fairplay and descended into old-school D&D tactics. They tore down the hedge to cover up the fumes blowing off of the toxic pool. Then they start taking apart the wooden cages and start piling up the scraps over the cave entrance. The idea was to start a fire in front of the cave to smoke the orcs out.
Seldon summoned a Sprite to trigger the poison bloom's gas, in order for Shulkuru and Janus to root out the plants and throw them on the fire to add some poison to the fumes. He also noted that the Sprite could deal fire damage with its weapon, so he sent the Sprite to add its fire to the pile. I couldn't find a skill to roll for making and sustaining fire, but I let the PCs roll Survival to maintain a smoky fire.
- Everything else was rolled behind the GM screen. I had the Sculptor give two of his followers a moderate Frost's Vial to extinguish the fire, but when the PCs continued to pile on more flammables, the Sculptor sent the Blood Ooze to bust down the door. He succeeded in sending the ooze against the flaming pile once, pushing it enough for the PCs to see the red tendrils peeking out of the cave, but then the Sculptor rolled a critical failure to command the Ooze. The burnt Ooze turned on the orcs and finished them off.
When the PCs entered the cave the next day, they found a wounded Blood Ooze and everyone else dead. The PCs got the information and valuable treasure they needed, and left.
- The players felt more confident and aware of their abilities. The Oracle used her Heal spell more effectively, and the Witch was much more proactive in using his spells cunningly. The Swashbuckler's player was as reckless with her current PC as she was with the last one, but better knew when to use Hero Points, and to keep closer to healers. After finding his combat ability to be lacking, the Investigator started planning to go into combat with his Healer's Tools, so he could use Ready Action to use Battle Medicine on someone who got hurt.
- I missed out on playtesting a lot of the PCs' mechanics because the players felt they shouldn't 'play fair' anymore. The module assumed that the party would walk into each encounter, even if it was an ambush, and would punish them if they took the careful way in. The players' ability to see ambushes coming with 'On the Scene' and the Witch's scouting familiar made it much more blatant, and made them less willing to follow the module's assumed plans for the PCs.
They were very creative in solving problems, but most of them worked because the module didn't assume players would be that canny. Both caves had only one entrance, which made them dangerous to enter for players who came in looking for a fight, but were dangerous for the NPCs when the PCs realized they had trapped their enemies inside. In planning their trap, the PCs often relied more on their mundane equipment than their special feats: Janus' Trident was very useful in handling dangerous materials in H2.
I've asked them to avoid operating outside of the module's assumptions for level 3, so that we can better gauge what PCs are capable of doing. Still, I want to encourage creative thinking, especially since the class being playtest rely on learning things, having access to interesting spells, and doing daring actions.
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PCs for Level 3
Shulkuru the Rainbow-Collared (Swashbuckler) upgrades:
- Toughness Feat
- Expert in Intimidation
Seldon Calendar (Witch) upgrades:
- Toughness Feat
- Spells: Spiritual Weapon, Invisibility, Knock
Brother Green (Investigator) upgrades:
- Expert in Medicine, Training in Stealth
- Incredible Initiative feat
Janus Thane (Oracle)
- Canny Acumen (Reflex)
- Expert in Religion
- Spells: Darkvision, Dispel Magic, Heal as Signature Spell
The players were very happy to use their new powers. The Witch's player wanted to spam Augury, but I reminded him that Augury only works for events 30 minutes in the future. The party then started planning a scam to act like a travelling circus, with a forged invitation made with Brother Green's Lore (Scribing) skill. Janus would perform stories, Shulkuru would perform acrobatics, Brother Green would use Recall Knowledge to tell stories, and when the BBEG showed up, Seldon would hit her with a Charm Spell.
I warned them that the make-up of the fort (both in lay-out and the deadliness of the monsters) meant that gathering all the monsters together meant that it could quickly be a TPK if something wrong happened. I think they picked up on the cue that I wanted to playtest the class mechanics (unlike last level), so they decided to play it straight and try to sneak in and take them out in smaller groups.
Maybe if the Witch sent his familiar over the palisade to scout it out, they might have realized how difficult it is to sneak in to the fort. Like, there is a lookout watching the palisade every couple of minutes, and there are two guards in the general area who would be in visual range to see PCs slipping over the top. And because they're orcs, there's no benefit to sneaking in at night-time (the module even suggests that the place is better patrolled at night). The Swashbuckler did climb over sneakily, and only got caught when she kept failing the Athletics check to lift the final bar across the palisade. But realistically, unless the entire party were ninjas and slipped over the top, there's no way the orcs wouldn't notice the door was opened. In retrospect, I kind of wish I had encouraged them to play the 'Circus' routine.
So the PCs had to roll initiative at the doors of the palisade. Seldon beat Graytusk on Initiative, and attempted to use Charm to make her not ring the alarm. Unfortunately, she made her saving throw, and pulled the alarm. Seldon, having to move into the fort in order to get close enough to Graytusk to use his spell, quickly got swarmed by the orcs, and quickly had to use his Hero Point to not die. Shulkuru decided to rush the watchtower and take out the archer. When I explained to her that she wasn't good enough at Athletics to straight-up leap into it, she decided to run up the stairs and open the hatch to the watchtower. For her efforts, Graytusk's orc partner came down the ladder and critically hit her with a dagger. Janus spent her first turn casting Shield and Magic Weapon. Brother Green, having his Healer's Tools in hand and readying it to use Battle Medicine, delayed his turn to start after the orcs. When Seldon went down, he rushed over to the Witch, and amazingly failed to beat a DC 15 Medicine check with a +10 bonus! He sheepishly used his 3rd action to go back outside the palisade.
By the time Lord Nar and the rest of the orcs came out, things were quickly going pear-shaped. Lord Nar burned through Janus' Hero Point and dropped her twice, leaving her dying in the Guarded Yard. Seldon used Invisibility to join Shulkuru in the watchtower. Brother Green decided to rush past the orcs and sneak into the building: his player gave out a groan when the Reception Hall's doors turned out to be locked! Once Graytusk jumped out onto the stairs, Shulkuru closed the hatch and moved the bed on top of it.
I had half of the orcs chase Brother Green to the other palisade and stab him to death while he failed to climb away. The other orcs tried to open the hatch of the watchtower, while I had Lord Nar and Graytusk walk around to the Reception Hall (unlocking it in front of Brother Green). Seldon (still Invisible) snuck into the Reception Hall, and was able to see and identify the elementals there without being seen. When Lord Nar opened the door, he saw the Lizardfolk Swashbuckler rush past him out the door, and the door to the study open.
The named orcs followed the invisible witch deeper into the building, while the rabble orc chased the Swashbuckler. Using her panache, Shulkuru rushed out of the fort and ran far away. Seldon kept running deeper into the building, until he entered the room with the brine sharks. I told him that the orcs froze in fear, refusing to cross the threshold, and that a rush of water swept on him with vicious teeth. The Brine Sharks managed to detect him and beat the Invisibility roll to kill the Witch.
To throw the party a bone, when the Swashbuckler announced she was going to go back to town, I let her come across the Alchemical Drudge Vilree sent to Etran's Folly to kill the town. Still badly wounded, Shulkuru wanted to confront the Drudge (since she could tell I was reading from the module, so this was a legit part of the adventure). Sadly, despite winning Initiative and getting off two Finishers against the Drudge, it easily beat Shulkuru to death.
Thoughts: I am a little miffed on how difficult this module has been, but it has been a good ordeal to stress-test the PCs. The Investigator was absolutely useless in the big battle. The Witch had a lot of options when he was deep in combat (Charm, Invisibility), which were different from his regular spells used while he was in the back rank. The Battle Oracle was holding her own against the Orc Drudges until Lord Nar came in. The Swashbuckler got to be very mobile and act like a swashbuckler. When she Demoralized the weaker orc while hiding in the watchtower in order to gain her panache, I could really envision that like a scene in a movie: a brawler trying to keep her ego afloat while in a losing battle.
I think this particular level would have been better without the APG classes. Particularly, a spellcaster with lots of Area damage spells. The Battle Oracle was fine, but the attack bonuses of the named orcs was high enough to hit on 7: something with greater AC and HP would have been better. A Ranger with long-range attacks would have been much better than the Investigator. The Swashbuckler did fine, but a Barbarian would probably have been better. My feeling is that the APG classes aren't great for combat-heavy scenarios. They would need some Core Book classes to shore up their combat weaknesses.
The players quickly got into the groove of using their spells and feats. All of the 2nd-level spells made them forget about simpler stuff like using the Witch's familiar for scouting. I didn't really think their 'travelling circus plan' would work well: even if the orcs believed in it, I don't know how interested they would be in it, or if they'd let their guards down.